Where Things Stand on the American Legion Site, June 2022

Based on the flurry of emails, petitions, NextDoor posts, and Twitter threads about the American Legion site, you would think that the Chapel Hill Town Council is on the brink of making a decision on the future of the 36-acre property.

But you’d be wrong. As we’ve seen time and time again in Chapel Hill, we’re just getting started.

What happened at the Council work session?

Last night’s discussion of the petition created by Michael Parker and co-signed by Karen Stegman, Tai Huynh, Camille Berry, and Paris Miller-Foushee provided a window into what the other three members of Council (and the Mayor) thinks about Parker’s plan to build housing and a park on the site.

TL;DR

What is this about? (See previous coverage of the American Legion petition, and the importance of finding a way to pay for the project)

What did the council decide? There are eight council members, and five signed the petition, so it’s going forward. The three council members who didn’t sign the petition (Amy Ryan, Jess Anderson, Adam Searing) all had reservations about moving forward with a plan, as did Mayor Pam Hemminger.

What happens next? Per the petition, town staff will put together a proposal for the future of the site, which will be discussed in the fall.

The discussion of the Legion site happened last night during a Council work session. Work sessions are public meetings, but no decisions are made and public comment is not permitted.

In a brief presentation, town staff discussed the history of the site, and their interpretation of what Parker and the other council members were calling for. Here’s a terrific illustration of what building a park and housing on the site might look like:

After the presentation, the Mayor asked Council members to comment. As often seems the case, council member Amy Ryan spoke first, commenting first on her email box (which she described as “crazy town”).  She then sought to head off any discussion about building housing on the site, noting that she didn’t want to pit “housing against parks and open space.”

Even so, Ryan affirmed what was until recently a consensus position—that the property should contain housing and a park.

Ryan also questioned the urgency of the petition, wanting to wait until other town planning efforts (not scheduled to be completed until 2025) are finished before making a decision on the property. She argued that the town should take its time with the property. (Studying things to death is a common tactic to defer decision-making and essentially kill a project.)

“I’m happy to landbank it [the Legion site] until we have the money and bandwidth to develop it,” she said. (Land banking happens when a municipal government acquires property and holds on to it until they are able to sell it for a higher value. The resulting revenue is then used to acquire more land that can be developed. Ryan seems to be talking about something different.)

Council member Jess Anderson followed Ryan, affirming her interest in seeing housing and a park on the site. However, she called the timeline “more political than practical,” suggesting that the town doesn’t have the capacity to work on this project.

We then heard from Adam Searing, who went further than Anderson and Ryan, calling for the entire property to remain a park. (He also shared a story about fishing on the pond as a child and being chased off the property by armed Legionnaires).

After hearing from the three council members who didn’t sign the petition (the Mayor, who also didn’t sign the petition, always has the last word in Council meetings), we turned to the five who signed it. All five council members affirmed their support for the petition.

Council member Miller-Foushee took umbrage at Anderson’s accusation that that timeline was “political,” calling on members of the public to revisit earlier discussions of the property.

“This petition is a direct reflection and an iteration of the original resolution,” she said. “My signing on to this petition is not a political move. I’m putting folks on notice to not ever frame my service or leadership or the decisions I make as a political move.”

As Stegman and Huynh both mentioned, the Council has not taken action on the property for several years, and this petition was intended to restart the process. Council member Parker noted that this petition will allow the town to actually get a park, paid for and maintained with the revenues from the pieces of the property that will be developed.

Parker said he supported the timeline outlined in the petition (which would result in the council voting on a plan for the property in early 2023), but understands if it needs to be delayed a few months.

Council member Berry used her comments to correct a common misunderstanding of the property (one echoed in the News & Observer’s article about the meeting).

“First of all, it is not a park,” Berry said. “It is land that we have secured. Some are using it as a park.” She went on to note that her priority on the council is housing, and said that her experience running Durham Central Park, which is five acres, shows that a park does not have to be large to be successful.

She went on to call for the Council to use “more than fear” to look at the possibilities for the property, noting later that the Council’s M.O. is often to be slow to make decisions.

“I am really wondering how people can say that they don’t want to provide housing to people who are struggling to find it,” she said. “People with intellectual disabilities are one key population we’re looking at here. This is one small use of the space.”

In her concluding remarks, Mayor Pam Hemminger said that she wanted to find common ground in the Council, though she was clearly on the side of Ryan, Anderson, and Searing. She went on to argue that the pandemic delayed conversations about the property (although the town was able to consider and approve a $40 million parking deck during the pandemic).

One final note: We highly recommend reading through the Racial Equity Toolkit for the American Legion Property prepared by students at the UNC School of Social Work in 2017, which outlines some of the ongoing issues with this land and the process in determining what happens to it.